ALEKSEJ KONSTANTINOVICH TOLSTOJ:
FROM GERMAN TO RUSSIAN
Poems from his Letters to Karolina Pavlova,
Translated by Nonna Slepakova
Introduction and notes by A. A. Iliushin
When translating from German into Russian and from Russian into German, Tolstoj did not try so much to preserve the peculiarities of foreign poetics as to bring the translated poems closer to the poetic tradition of the reader. He was not seduced by the temptation of equimetric versification: he thought that the main aim of poetic translation is to convey the impression produced by the original, and he did not strive for linear and literal faithfulness. In early September 1867 he wrote to his wife about his version of Goethe’s The Bride of Corinth: “I am trying, as far as it is possible, to be faithful to the original, but only when faithfulness (or precision) does not harm the artistic impression, and I give up literal translation without hesitation if it produces an impression which, in Russian, differs from that in German”. “I think that one should not translate either words or even (sometimes) meaning, but, first and foremost, the impression”.
This is the reason why a very tempting problem becomes, to a great extent, meaningless: to translate Tolstoj’s German poems as if they were translated by the author himself (that is to do the work which he did not do) and thus to fill a lacuna in the history of Russian nineteenth-century translated poetry. This problem appears unsolvable in principle: we cannot guess what Tolstoj himself would have done (it is certain that the translation would have been unfaithful, but we cannot be sure in what way). Therefore, this situation is paradoxical: the closer the translation is to the German original, the farther it is from Tolstoj’s Russian poems, and vice versa. Nonna Slepakova was forced to take this contradiction into account. Her work, however, reveals her striving for an adequate rendition of the original: this means that she chose the way which Tolstoj is very unlikely to have approved. Nevertheless, it does not follow from this that she disregarded the style of Tolstoj’s Russian works. The results of her efforts are impressive: sometimes we can imagine that we hear the voice of the celebrated author of Koz’ma Prutkov.